Adjusting Passing Yards for Inflation

A few weeks ago on Monday night football, Drew Brees broke the all time passing yardage record. It was a pretty cool moment that brought Saints fans to tears (okay, well it was really just one guy, but still). I’ve always been a fan of Brees, and I feel like his greatness has often gone overlooked. However what’s often used against him is the era he played in. Guys Like Warren Moon and Dan Marino put up great numbers in the 80’s and 90’s. Famously Dan Marino threw for 5,084 yards back in 1984. Peyton Manning threw for the most passing yards ever when he racked up 5,477. However that was in 2013, a full 29 years after Marino has his legendary season. I wanted to see just how great guys like Brees, Marino and Manning were. It’s difficult to compare players from different eras, but it’s also fun, so I adjusted passing yards for inflation, and got some pretty interesting data out of it.


(Note: I recorded back to 1950)

 This next paragraph is going to be explaining how I got the data, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph if math bores you. The first thing I did was calculate how many total passing yards were thrown throughout each season. I faced a minor setback when I couldn’t find that information anywhere, I’m sure it’s on some website and I just suck at research, but I couldn’t find it. However I was able to find how many passing yards each team gave up for each season, so I was able to add those together to figure out the total passing yards from each season. The most passing yards were in 2016 when there were 123,639 total yards thrown, and the least passing yards were thrown in 1956 with 21,251 total yards thrown (although granted, there were only 12 game seasons and 12 teams in the league back then). Since some seasons had less than 32 teams and less than 16 games, I had to take that into consideration. So I used the ratio of yards passed per team and games played from each season to figure out how many yards would’ve been thrown if each season had 32 teams play 16 games. I could then just look at how many yards a quarterback threw for, adjust for total games his team played if necessary, then figure out what the percentage of the overall passing yards from that season was. I could then use that percentage to figure out the equivalent amount of yards they would’ve thrown for today. I also wanted to try to expand the sample size as much as possible, so for example when calculating a season, I didn’t just look at the passing yards from that season, I found the average of that season, the 2 prior and the next 2 (so for 2005, I found the average from 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007). This was to cut down on potential outlier years, and also to use a good season by a quarterback against them as little as possible. Throwing for 1,000 yards more than a replacement lever quarterback would make a small difference in a season where there was 100,000 total yards thrown, but it would make almost no difference when you’re looking at 500,000 total yards thrown.

I was then curious to look at 5,000 yard seasons. There have been 9 total times a quarterback has thrown for 5,000 yards, but adjusted for inflation there have been an even 50 times a quarterback has done it, and I put all of them down below.

There are three I left off this list, and I left them off because it was in 1982, when there were just 9 games played, which I felt like was too small of a sample size. Those players were Dan Fouts (5,836) Joe Montana (5,289) and Ken Anderson (5,051). Fouts’ season would’ve been the second best all time had I included it.

Screenshot (972)

Probably the most interesting thing is who’s at number one. I often feel that Joe Namath’s legacy is that he was good, and pulled off the huge upset in Super Bowl 3, but was more of a celebrity then anything else. So I was certainly a bit surprised to see him at number one. It’s also interesting that 1967 was the only season he had where he threw for over 5,000 yards adjusted for inflation. Also Dan Fouts having such success was kind of surprising, he’s somewhat of a forgotten legend by a lot of people. He had the 2nd and 4th best season in terms of passing yards, and would’ve had 3 of the top 5 seasons had I counted 1982. Drew Brees and Dan Marino both had top 5 seasons, and Warren Moon had multiple top 10 seasons as well. There were a total of 11 players who had multiple seasons make this list, and I put them below.

          Drew Brees             5

          Dan Fouts                4

          Dan Marino            4

          Johnny Unitas        3

          Warren Moon        2

          Peyton Manning    2

          Sonny Jurgensen   2

          Tom Brady              2

          Fran Tarkenton     2

          John Hadl                2

          Matt Stafford          2

As you can see, Drew Brees had 5 of these seasons, which isn’t really a surprise since he has that many 5,000 yard seasons even when you don’t adjust for inflation. Fouts and Marino both were right behind him with 4, and Unitas picked up 3.

There are 11 current teams who don’t have a player on the list, although a few of those are actually debatable. One is the Cleveland Browns, who have 2 quarterbacks on the list, but they were both before the new franchise was formed. Similarly with the Baltimore Ravens since there’s no Raven on the list, but Johnny Unitas and Bert Jones made it when they played for the Baltimore Colts. There’s also the 49ers, which is kind of a surprise that with all the great quarterbacks that they had, none of them ever threw for the equivalent of 5,000 yards. Although the exception is Joe Montana, who would’ve been on the list had I included the 1982 season. The other 8 teams that don’t have anyone on the list are the Bills, Steelers, Titans, Jaguars, Cowboys, Seahawks, Buccaneers and Falcons. Kinda surprising to see the Cowboys, Steelers and Bills on this list when you think about some of the quarterbacks they had, however it just goes to show how tough it is to throw for 5,000 yards, even when adjusted for inflation.

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